The landscape of cycling in America has changed dramatically over the past decade. Participation in bike racing has suffered from not only a post-Lance Armstrong hangover, but also the rise of other cycling events that were a tad more appealing to new-comers. Gravel events has seen a dramatic increase in popularity over the past few years as has Gran Fondos and Cyclosportiff events.
Just what is a Gran Fondo or Cyclosportiff?
Both terms have foreign origins with Gran Fondo loosely translating from Italian to the ‘Big Ride’ and Cyclosportiff being the French translation for the same. These events are large, mass start rides that have been imported to the US cycling scene from abroad, replacing the much more drab and recreational sounding ‘Century’. Think of the Gran Fondo or Cyclosportiff as a Century ride with a splash of European flare and a distance not locked in at 100mi (in fact most events offer a few different distances to choose from). They tend to offer a more electric staging area that has the feel of a real European bike race, perhaps a large expansive expo of vendors and sponsors, the help of both pace cars and neutral support vehicles, a more enticing ‘swag’ bag of goodies for entrants, and of course a slightly steeper entry fee (Gran Fondo New York runs about $240 and attracts over 5000 riders globally).
Many of these cycling events appear more like mass start bike races than casual spins through the countryside. The number of riders with shaved legs generally will out-number the unshaven. Sleek, lightweight carbon racing bikes are more frequent than bikes equipped with panniers. Plus many of the current selection of Gran Fondo rides offer timed sections (generally spaced around a large climb) where riders of all abilities can compare their performance to the elite riders. The Gran Fondo is typically an easier, less stressful step for the recreational cyclist who wants to get a taste of some competitive riding verses joining the ranks of a category 5 field (where new bike racers must start within USA Cycling) and competing in a hair-raising and potentially crash-marred multi-corner criterium!
Riding the same route as the professionals is nothing new to Europeans as there are several rides that take cyclists over the identical course used in the Tour de France, the Giro (Tour of Italy), and several of the more famous Spring Classics. Perhaps the most well-known ride is the L’Etape du Tour, which takes place in July and boasts a field of over 8000 riders! Think that is a lot of riders? The Amstel Gold race plays host to over 18,000 amateur riders the day before the pros do battle in this epic Spring Classic.
Some events to ponder around the New York area include: Gran Fondo New York (the grad daddy of them all), NJ Gran Fondo, Highlands Gran Fondo, Jersey Devilman Gran Fondo, plus a host of longer Charity rides which also offer amazing routes and support (note – there may be a fund-raising commitment for many of these rides). Some of the Charity rides in the area include JDRF’s Ride to Cure (usually six rides in various locations including one in Saratoga Springs), the MS Ride from NYC, Columbia University’s Velocity Ride for Cancer, Wall Street Rides far for Autism, Bike HSS (to many a few)!
Tips for Training for Your First Century Ride
1. Give Yourself Enough Time
Like any endurance event (marathon or Ironman), plan on starting your training early so you can build up the miles in a slow and steady manner (best course of action to avoid injuries). Regardless of how often you plan to stop, a 100 mile or km ride is a LONG DAY IN THE SADDLE. Your body will need time to adapt to that kind of saddle time (as will your butt). It is not uncommon for an Ironman athlete to dedicate the better part of a year to get ready for that sort of distance. Depending on your fitness, that might be on the long side for a Century but 3 to 5 months of semi-structured training is not out of the question depending on your starting point fitness-wise.
2. Mix in both LONG and SHORT distance rides
When training for a marathon you rarely ever run the FULL 26.2 mi distance before race and the same goes for your first Century (no need to do 100 miles before hand). How far should you go before your event? Basically those doing 100 mile should look to get in at least one 70-75 mile ride and those doing a metric century (62.5mi) should aim for a 50 mile ride prior to their event.
Additionally, just like the marathon runner, build up your mileage SLOWLY and use the weekends to get in your LONG RIDE, while focusing on shorter rides during the week when time is crunched. Frequency in riding (or running) is often better than only 1 or 2 longer rides a week as volume breeds familiarity for the required muscle groups. Aim for 4 or 5 workouts each week, with the length of the long weekend ride increasing gradually (marathoners have a 10% rule – don’t increase the length of the long run by more than 10% each week – and for the cyclist you could probably extend this to no more than a 15-20%).
3. Don’t forget the INTENSITY
I will go back to the marathon analogy, a more efficient way to get stronger as a runner (or cyclist) is to keep the pace slow and steady for the weekend LONG ENDURANCE workouts (think of duration rather than speed), while the weekday workouts need to be more challenging in nature – hill repeats or intervals. Just as a marathon runner does not want to do every workout at their goal marathon pace, a cyclist doing his first (or tenth Century) should not always ride at the same speed or intensity. Add in some short hill repeats, some intervals of varying length, anything that gets you out of your comfort zone for a bit!
4. Know the Course
And this applies to almost every athlete who races! From marathoners or Ironmen to doing a Gran Fondo or Century, intimate knowledge on the course you will be facing is key to success! Often a Event Promoter’s idea of “gently rolling hills’, a phrase I have seen numerous times describing a event only to find towering climbs that need far different gearing that I have on my bike. Routes can often be found on Strava or Ride with GPS giving you greater insight to what is in store (riders who tackle the Tour of the Catskills are faced with a climb called Devil’s Kitchen which requires good old fashioned ‘Granny Gears’ on your bike or be prepared to walk!). If the course is hilly, then some of the shorter, more intense weekly rides should be dedicated to Hill work!
5. Tune up the Bike
Before starting any structured training take your bike in to your local bike shop (LBS for short and yes, they still exist) and get a full tune up if you have not done so in the past few years. Tires, cables, seat, bar tape – have it all looked at and taken care of if worn out! This feeds into the next tip…
6. Learn how to Fix a Flat (and other minor bike repairs)
Being prepared to tackle a Century ride and all of the training that comes with it means some long lonely miles on your bike. Make sure you travel far from home (in NYC that means anytime riding over the Bridge), you bring tube, multi-tool, tire levers, ID and credit card (yes, I’ve had to Uber home from distance as one of the listed items above was missing from my bike). It still amazes me when I come across someone who does not have a clue and they are far from home, especially when there are literally dozens of videos on the internet on how to properly change a flat tire. Additionally, many LBSs often hold after hours clinics on changing a tire, plus other minor repairs like adjusting a derailleur, fixing a broken chain, etc. which I would recommend sitting in on!
7. Get a Professional Bike Fit
I’ve written on this topic a great deal and personally think the single greatest investment a cyclist or triathlete can make in his or her own performance is a professional bicycle fit. I am not saying this as a coach or even a bike fitter, but as one who has seen far too many athletes spend small fortunes on bicycles that in the end were not properly fitted to them. A bicycle fit is essentially the proper marriage between rider and bicycle and an ill-fitting bike can be pure misery for a 100-mile (or kilometer) bike ride.
To read my full thoughts on this topic see my blog post:
8. Get Some Help
This can be as simple as finding a friend to train with or joining a cycling club for help on find longer routes, but don’t try to do this alone! Local cycling clubs often offer weekly training rides with multiple pace groups to join, which will not only expand your network of cyclists but could unveil routes in your area you never knew existed (which I am still uncovering around NYC even after nearly 3 decades of riding). Going one step further could be hiring a coach to help with the structured training. Where to find a coach? Ask your local bike club or team for recommendations or look on USA Cycling’s website where they have a search to location coaches geographically - (https://www.usacycling.org/find-a-coach).
9. Have a Nutrition Plan
Again this is a HUGE one and applicable too the Century rider, Ironman athlete or marathoner. All the training in the world could be rendered useless without a proper nutrition plan. Practice what you plan to eat and drink before the event. Find the drinks, gels and foods that agree with you and bring them to the race. Find out what the event will have and practice eating and drinking it.
Week Prior to the event:
>Increase fluid intake BUT avoid caffeine, diet sodas and alcohol.
>Slight increase in carbohydrate intake.
>Don’t do anything new food wise and don’t eat a big meal late the night before
Morning of the race:
>Pre workout/race meal – 3 hours prior
>3 hours prior - 75 to 100 grams of carbohydrates
>Limit of 240 – 280 carbohydrate calories an hour into the energy cycle!
>Drink 10 – 12 fluid ounces each hour up to 30 minutes prior (make sure you are well hydrated)
Workout / Race Fueling & Nutrition
>Start off well fueled and hydrated
>Drink electrolyte replacement fluids during any training session that lasts 60 minutes or longer. A Century ride will take longer than that. Plan on drinking 1 bottle of water per hour of exercise, knowing this could increase under hot and humid conditions.
>Eat energy gels or bars during any training session that last 90 minutes or longer. The key figure to remember is your body needs 40 to 50 grams of carbs per hour (1 gel has roughly 25gm), therefore plan on 1 gel and 1 bottle of Sports drink PER HOUR during the event.
10. Dress for Success
If you are just a recreational rider and have never tackled a distance such as this, make sure you are dressed for success! This includes cycling shoes and clip-less pedals (doing a century in running shoes is inadvisable, a nice set of cycling shorts with chamois and a proper fitting jersey with plenty of pockets. Other items not to forget:
· Helmet and sunglasses
· Arm and leg warmers (depending on time of year and if an early start)
· Rain jacket (if weather looks threatening)
New Gran Fondo or Century rides are popping up every year, so if you are looking to add a little spice to your cycling and at the same time want to give yourself a new challenge – give one a try! If you are anything like me, you will be hooked!